My earliest memory of him is waking up on Sunday mornings to the All India Radio’s signature tune playing on his creamish yellow ‘transistor’ (a radio, which we somehow always referred to as a transistor) followed by a deep voice: “This is the All Indian Radio. And the news is read by .… ”
I must have been five years old and we were living in a quaint township up in the hills of Jammu region. As I walked out of the room, half asleep, rubbing my eyes, he would be busy filling up buckets of water in our bathroom.
Sundays were special as that was the day of the week he would be home. He was never a man of many words (he still speaks very little), but he would craft special things for my older sister and me, which we would proudly exhibit in front of our envious friends.
For instance, a tarazu (traditional weighing scale) made out of empty Cherry Blossom shoe polish tins. Or, quickly fold a paper into a fighter jet (yes, fighter jet, and not an aeroplane), or a paper ball in which we would blow air to make it swell and then play with it.
During the summer vacations, we used to visit his hometown Akhnoor where our ancestral house overlooks the majestic Chenab River with its icy cold waters. In the mornings of peak summer heat, he would take my sister and me to the river. We both bathed close to the river bank, while he would disappear into the strong currents of the Chenab, only to reappear at some other point inside the river. We sisters watched him in awe. He was, and still is, our superhero.
Visiting the local market with him, carrying a cloth bag stitched at home by my mother on her Usha sewing machine, was a learning experience. I remember standing on a side and watching him buy vegetables. That may be the a reason I have been unable to graduate to ordering vegetables and groceries online. I have to hold tomatoes, potatoes, capsicums, brinjals in my hand, feel them, before buying them. A visit to the subzi mandi always lifts up my mood. May be because it subconsciously connects me with him and my childhood in the hills.
Then came the teenage years. My sister and I started to notice how adolescent girls in his hometown Akhnoor (and our ancestral house is inside the Rajput Mandi) would not wear skirts or denims. During one of the summer holiday visits to his hometown, we sisters wondered if we should wear a salwar-kurta. I clearly remember his reply: “Wear what you wish to wear and not what others expect you to wear.” I wore my denims and a t-shirt.
I have never forgotten his words. During my last visit to his hometown, to meet my extended family, which was two years ago when I visited Akhnoor for a media fellowship, I wore my denims and a t-shirt.
Although he spoke very little, I learnt many things from him by just observing him and how he handled certain situations. From him I learnt the importance of giving space to people to grow, and respecting their privacy. When we were young kids, no one would open the mail addressed to us — even if it was some junk chain letter. Often, he would tell my mother to let us do the things we wished to do otherwise we would hide and still do them.
While my friends had to hide and talk to boys, he encouraged us to make friends with both boys and girls. Almost every evening I was at the officers’ club of our hill town playing table tennis with the boys. Many winter afternoons were spent playing cricket in the lawns of our bungalow with my brother and his friends.
Then came the tough decision of moving to New Delhi, 700-km away from our hill town, for my graduate studies. We both went berserk travelling between the South Campus and North Campus of the Delhi University, filling up forms, appearing for entrance exams and looking for my name in the college admission lists.
Surviving alone in Delhi was not an easy task and I would write long letters to him cribbing about the problems I faced — “my money is finished; I boarded a wrong bus; I cannot adjust in Delhi crowd; I am not fluent in English.” Almost immediately I received his reply — pages of hand written letters — offering me his support and love (I still have those letters saved somewhere).
During my college days, I decided to pick up summer jobs, he supported me. After college, I decided to move to a rural area in Alwar, Rajasthan to work with rural women, he supported it. Thereafter, with no experience in journalism, I joined a fortnightly magazine in New Delhi as a reporter requiring me to travel alone to back-of-beyond places in the country to report on mining, deforestation, groundwater contamination, polluting industries, he supported me (remember those days there were no mobile phones to keep in touch).
Often, I would return home at 2-3am during the issue closing days, much to the horror of other residents in the colony who would ask my mother questions about my work, but he remained unfazed and never questioned me or my work.
My friends started to get married one after the other, but he once told me: “Do not be under any pressure to get married. From our side, there is no pressure.”
I made mistakes, learnt from them, and he supported me all along. I have already lived more than four decades of my life, and he has grown old. But, till date, when I feel bogged down by the circumstances, I pick up my phone and talk to him. He is not just my superhero, but also my sounding board. I know he understands me as a person, respects the choices I make and above all, believes in me.
While I was growing up in the hill town, I read a quote: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings.”
Thank you, my superhero, my father, for giving me the roots that keep me grounded in life, and the wings that help me soar high to achieve my dreams. I celebrate you every day in the little actions I do in my daily life.
Happy Father’s Day!
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